It's "carnival" in English, but the Portuguese "carnaval" (accent on the "val") is prettier. Both words come from the Latin-esque Italian, carne vale: literally, "Goodbye, meat," but in spirit more like "Farewell to desires of the flesh." Protestantism, rooted in chilly Northern Europe, would have us bid that farewell abruptly, even rudely, and for keeps. Slam the door on desire and that's that. Catholicism, a Mediterranean invention, evolved a small-"c" catholic (inclusive) tradition that could be summed up as: What's a goodbye without a kiss? And why stop at kissing? If we're going to bid farewell to desires of the flesh, let's first evoke those desires in all their regalia – we'll dance from the streets to the bars to the bed, with masks, costumes, music, drums, and spirits (liquid and/or noncorporeal). The best goodbyes are celebrations. Let's celebrate our desires before we bid them farewell.
And so we have Mardi Gras ... Fat Tuesday ... Carnaval, before the rigors of Lent. As Laurence Durrell wrote in Balthazar: "Carni vale – the flesh's farewell to the year, unwinding its mummy wrappings of sex, identity, and name, and stepping forward naked into the futurity of the dream." That's his viscous way of saying that Carnaval, both as party and as metaphor, is rife with the mysteries of sex, love, and identity.
Allow me then, in the spirit of Carnaval, to play with those mysteries a little.
Let's say, playfully, without pretending any grand insights, but just to kind of dance with it all ... let's say that love, sex, and identity, have mainly to do with three essential spheres of a human being: the soul, the psyche, and the body.
Let's throw out all the baggage we usually associate with those words and define them somewhat differently – let's costume them for Carnaval.
Let's say that by the "soul" we mean: a journeyer through Eternity ... the entity within us that gets reincarnated ... something that is our essence and yet is not ours at all, because it existed before our birth and lives on after we die, to inspirit someone else. Let's say the soul's an entity hungry for the human experience in all its forms (or why would it bother with us?). Thus a soul chooses you or me for its human journey with one intention: to experience. Does it care whether its experience is happy or tragic? Naw. "Happy" and "tragic," "good" and "bad," "safety" and "danger," are human concerns. But a soul has a huge chunk of eternity to play with, far longer than a human lifetime, and "success" or "failure," "contentment" or "despair" are, from the soul's viewpoint, merely categories to investigate. To the soul, pleasure and pain are equally valid and equally sought-after experiences. (Which would explain a lot of so-called "self-destruction.") The soul wants knowledge. Knowledge through experience. It takes the human journey to discover that knowledge. And yet, and yet ... it imparts to us our most essential sense of self. Which may be why we feel that our deepest selves are unknowable, even to ourselves – and why, when our souls are deeply touched, there are no adequate human terms for the glory of that experience and the wonder of that knowledge. (Mind you, I'm just playin'.)
Now let's say that "psyche" is what in rough terms we might call our "psychology" – all that Freudian-Jungian-Gestalt stuff, the ego, the unconscious, the id, complexes generated by childhood – human raw material, as it were. But add this wrinkle: American thought assumes that the psyche has a central "I," a primary center that is oneself, inviolate, individual; but what if it's not that way at all? What if, within an individual psyche, there are many, many selves? When I'm alone I am one kind of "I"; when with my family, I'm another "I"; with my best friends, another; with one lover, another, and with a different lover, still another; in a crowd, another; driving a car, another. Every situation, every context, brings forth a slightly and sometimes drastically different "I," with different behaviors and assumptions. "I" is multiple. "I" wears many masks, too many to be kept track of by the "I" which I like to think of as me. Sometimes a new person calls forth from me an "I" that I've never met before – which can be wonderful or terrible, depending. So let's say that by "psyche" we mean the mob of "I"s hiding beneath the singular "I" which is the name we sign on checks. (Honest, I'm just playin'.)
So much for "psyche" and "soul." "Body" is somewhat simpler.
Let's say "body" means: our personal meat. Not a biochemical factory that produces all our thoughts and feelings (as the shallower scientists now claim), but the older definition of "body" as a vehicle, a vessel, that carries and contains us. The psyche needs it to have any existence at all. The soul needs it to get around on this plane of existence. And the body needs them in order to have any dimensions at all. The body doesn't ask much in return: air, water, food, warmth, excretion, and sex. Sex – not just the act of sex, but the whole enchilada we associate with "sex" – is what connects the body to the psyche and the soul. Sex connects. (Sex separates too, but ... it separates through connection. That's what's so goddamn confusing about it.)
Now let's stir in "love." For what is Carnaval, at its core, but a challenge to and an invocation of love? What does Carnaval ever do but dare the limits of love?
We won't define "love." Can't be done. That's part of its allure. But now that we've defined our other terms we're ready for the central themes of this Carnaval thesis: a Carnaval vision of the ways of love. (Remember, I'm just playin'.)
First and deepest: Soul love. Two souls recognize what knowledge they want from each other. They want to suck the marrows from each other. ("I watched you with all the light and darkness I have," wrote the Greek poet George Seferis of soul love.) These two souls don't care if their love produces ecstasy or misery in the psyches and bodies that they happen to inhabit. If the psyche goes mad, if the body is destroyed, if a marriage fails, if a career implodes, if a family is shattered, what does that matter to a soul that has far more time to play with than the psyche-body entity? My soul, your soul, want to partake of each other – and everything else be damned. This is what human beings call a "great love"! Or as one vulgar associate of mine says, "The glory fuck of a lifetime." It may last hours or years, but to the soul all moments are eternal, so our human sense of duration is not its concern. One night or a lifetime. The human beings may regret the ruins they find themselves in afterward, but the soul inhabiting the human being feeds on the experience always. Which is to say: Your soul can ruin your life – can demand of your life a price that your psyche can't afford. Your soul doesn't care, as long as it receives the experience it desires. Your conscious "I" is ruined, but your soul is satisfied. You die, it travels on. Your story ends, its story doesn't. Bon voyage!
Carnaval's psyche love is more complicated but not as deep. In a moment of Carnaval (which can happen anytime, did I forget to say?) I've put on one particular mask of all the "I"s that I contain. And I see the mask that you, temporarily, are wearing. We dig each other's masks, my fragmentary "I" is entranced with yours, and our bodies relish the play. We cavort. In that fleshy dance, I wear your mask and you wear mine, and we see ourselves in the mirror of each other's masks ... that's what I call a good time. But you wake up with yesterday's mask on your face. You try to pull it off. But your lover wants you to keep it on. And you want your lover to keep his/her mask on. If you take it too seriously, if you forget it's Carnaval, you get stuck in those masks. There's a word for that: "marriage." Marriage – not for all, but for many – is the state of being stuck with one, maybe two, maybe five masks, out of so many "I"s in the psyche. Do you resent your husband/wife because the marriage sticks you in one or two or three "I"s, and, as time goes on, they're not your favorites? But why be so bleak? Remember, we're just playin'. Pity the poor bastards who confuse psyche love, the Carnaval of masks, with soul love (though the one can lead to the other). And celebrate the adepts (alas, they are few and inconsistent) who know that Carnaval's psyche love is but a dance, yet an exalting dance, a music worth dancing to, and the pain is part of its music.
It's all trouble anyway. You are gonna cry; so am I. The dance floor may really be a frail narrow bridge over a roaring chasm. In the spirit of Carnaval, relish the trouble and dance the dance. (Ah, but remember James Baldwin's celebratory caution: "Any human touch can change you.")
© 2005 Michael Ventura
Michael Ventura knows how to lift people up and how to keep them up, into the wee hours. He is a writer and columnist, called "a swaggering street thinker" by the New York Times Book Review. He was one of the co-founders of the LA Weekly and is presently writing columns for The Austin Chronicle and the LA Village View. Recent books include Letters at 3AM - Reports on Endarkenment, a collection of essays and The Zoo Where You're Fed to God, a novel.
This article was originally printed in the Austin Chronicle.